South Dakota Execution Day: May God Have Mercy
Today, at 10:00 p.m., South Dakota will execute a man, and another man within the next couple of weeks.
I am opposed to the death penalty.
In every case, no matter what, I am opposed to the death penalty, and I am on the basis of my religious beliefs.
Today’s case is tragic on so many levels: Eric Robert, at least according to all the biographical information I could find, seemed to have a fairly good family situation when growing up: no record of being abused; determined to do well–and did–academically; had a good and respected job; and volunteered in the community.
Publicly he was a “good man.”
Privately, he raped his girlfriend and beat her.
In South Dakota, his relationships with women did not improve. Another girlfriend accused him of rape, and he ended up in the penitentiary because he abducted and assaulted a woman after pretending to be a police officer.
While in prison, his rage “metastasized,” says this article, and he saw himself as a soldier in a war against the prison system.
And then he did what some soldiers have to do: he killed a prison guard, an enemy soldier to his mind, in his attempt to escape.
He killed this man, RJ Johnson, and told the Judge that he would have killed him too, if he had stood in the way of Robert reaching freedom.
Not only has Eric Robert plead guilty, but he has actually requested that he receive the death penalty. He refused to allow any of his good works to be presented at the trial, believing that only his awful deeds were relevant to deciding his fate.
So in sentencing him, obliging him of his wish to die, Judge Zell said, “May God have mercy on your soul.”
I can’t help but detect some irony here, as if he is saying “Good luck with that, Robert. Burn in hell.”
I might be wrong here, and if I am, I will publicly apologize. But generally, when somebody says to you, “May God have mercy on your soul,” they are not necessarily wishing you well, they are not hoping for the best.
And it is also ironic, because God actually does have a habit of being merciful, precisely to those who don’t deserve it.
In fact, isn’t that the definition of mercy, of grace? Offering forth something that somebody doesn’t deserve? Because if a person deserved it, she or he would be getting something else, like a reward, for example, or celestial bonus points.
But grace, but mercy, that’s different. If you get it, you shouldn’t, but that’s precisely why you are getting it. Because you shouldn’t.
I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases.
I am not, however, opposed to judgment.
Of course people who commit heinous crimes ought to be punished. Opposing the death penalty does not therefore mean endorsing anarchy.
But as a Christian, I’ve got a certain take on things. And so words matter, and are informed by a particular way of thinking about them by way of how I think about God.
There is a strong practice in the Judeo-Christian tradition of something called “restorative justice.” The goal is not merely “judgment,” but rather, exactly as you might expect, restoration. That is, something is not well, and as we are about bringing forth healing, we have a calling to seek reconciliation.
In other words, judgment as punishment is not the end. Judgment is seen as a part of the path to reconciliation.
It is not the end goal or end game.
Restoration, however, is.
And it’s worthy of noting that Jesus didn’t just wait for people to croak before he sought to bring it to them, even the “worst of the worst.”
“Today salvation has come to you,” he said, and in effect on more than one occasion.
To the degree that that bothers a person, that we have a calling to enable restoration to happen, here and now, not just washing our hands of it like Pontius Pilate, one then might be asked about what the goal is, in doling out the death penalty to a convicted criminal.
It seems pretty judgmental to me, in an end-gamey sort of way.
However, when you kill somebody, you not only don’t bring back the life that lived before the crime. You also take away any chance of repentance, of reconciliation, and of offering mercy and grace to the person who committed it.
Why wouldn’t Christians hold out for these possibilities?
All of these are hallmarks of the reign of God.
I am not advocating for release, early or otherwise, nor am I expecting that reconciliation will always come to pass. Some people who rape and kill ought to be away from society for ever and for good.
I am advocating for the possibility of restoration, for healing, the sort that can’t happen entirely when one of the parties is killed and the State is complicit in the killing.
Most mainline Protestant denominations officially oppose the death penalty, not to mention the Roman Catholic tradition. These links here and here are helpful to learn about the significant religious objection to the practice.
To some degree, the specifics of this case don’t matter. It is about the principle, not about the particular case-at-hand. The swath of statistics regarding the death penalty show that it is not a deterrent, it costs far more money than incarceration, and is deeply flawed by way of the proportional number of the poor and people of color who sit on the Row.
But this is where the point against the death penalty becomes both most clear and most distressing to me, looking at Christians who favor, clamor, even, for it: When Jesus hung on the cross, looking at those who had killed him–it was an assassination, a political murder, an unjust killing, and he knew it–looking at all those who killed him, by our present standards here in the U.S. (standards shared with nations like, oh, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, China, and Afghanistan) Jesus should have given them all the death penalty.
Instead, what did he do?
Say “Father, forgive them, for they have no clue what they are doing.”
Hah! He gave them life, not death, for killing him.
And anyway, let’s be frank. Does any mentally well person have a clue of what she or he is doing during a perverse crime? They might know that they are committing one, but can they really be well, doing it?
And can we as a people really be well, when we somehow believe that killing heals?
Let me be clear: there is no way to express my deepest grief at the pain of victims, their families, and their friends. Every time I think about the death penalty I imagine how I would feel if someone would rape or kill my children.
My eyes fill up and my fists clench and I feel nothing but building rage and revenge brewing in me–even for something that hasn’t happened.
It is hard for me to breathe.
I am not demeaning the pain.
Instead, I’m trying to honor it in a different way: Honor it by finding something healing, something restorative, something that keeps us human in the midst of the inhumanity, that can take root in the center of the rage.
“Today salvation has come,” said Jesus, in effect on more than one occasion.
Salvation in Greek is soteria.
It means, in Greek, health, healing, and wholeness.
May it be so, today, for Eric Robert.
May it be so also for his victims, their families, their friends…and his family, and his friends.
May it be so for all victims of violence and for those who protest it in all its forms.
May God have mercy and grant us all soteria.
These sites have further statistics and stories relative to this case and others.
So often — too often — the point is missed. Perhaps you were at your synod’s assembly some years ago when a death penalty resolution was being discussed, a discussion that quickly melted into a muddle composed of “you people don’t know how truly evil these men are” and “these men want to die” and “sometimes love is ‘tough'” — all perhaps purposely skirting the question of whether *we* have the right to make capital judgments. I submit we do not. One often hears the phrase “playing God” — never as a compliment — but what is greater God-playing than to deprive another of his or her life, regardless of how deserving we may think the punishment is?
I readily confess that when I learn of certain acts — child molestation being at the to of the list — my knee-jerk response is to volunteer to help build the gallows. But the greater component of one’s humanity, I think, is in cultivating the ability to resist knee-jerk responses in favor of reasoned, compassionate, *human* reactions.
Anyhow, may God have mercy on *our* souls!
No, I wasn’t at that assembly, and the conversation does get muddled regardless of where you are.
It’s precisely at moments like this, or in matters like this, that it becomes so clear how key it is to have a framework of thought: not an intellectual straight-jacket, but a method that’s been considered and wrestled with and grown into.
Because you are absolutely right: mention child molestation and murder, and I am beyond myself. If someone were to harm my children, of _course_ I would want the person dead.
But then, as they say in German, “Was bringt es?” What does it bring? What good does it do?
Protecting society? If a violent person is let out early, it is the fault of the courts and the system, not the individual.
Revenge by death? If that must be a person’s goal, it seems to be at odds with the very goal of revenge. Would not revenge be rather to let the criminal linger in prison for the rest of their lives, rather than free them from punishment by death? Perhaps one believes that they will be hastened to their eternal punishment sooner, but then one seems to be playing God not only by choosing whether someone may live or die, but also assuming that it’s a sure bet that God agrees with your judgment.
Deterrence for the next potential victim? Study after study disputes this purported value of capital punishment.
And, like you point out, we can not ignore that far and away, people on the Row were themselves victims of any number of forms of deprivation and depravity. Their stories too are often heartbreaking. When they were in need, where was the system? Now that they are in trouble, the system finds them.
Not one single thing that I have written is intended to take away the rage or minimize the pain of the victims.
Oh, please know that.
It is only to speak out of a framework, a framework that calls me back through the anger and the fear and the hate, and reminds me of radical grace.
Grace does not mean apathy, not indifference.
It means taking sure account of what has transpired, and responding to it with relentless clarity and conviction. And then, at least from a Christian standpoint, it means saying that we believe that death does not win, for either the oppressors or the victims, and therefore we are called to be stewards of life rather than stewards of further death.
It is, no matter what, so deeply sad.
I was struck by your posting and was especially struck by three particular comments:
1. “Today’s case is tragic on so many levels” As I noticed your OMG post on Facebook I looked below it on my news feed and saw a post from my friend asking for support for her family as they watch one of the men who murdered her father breathe his last tonight. This is tragic on so many levels. I would have to say that “theoretically” I am also opposed to the death penalty. But would I be if it were my family member who was murdered? I know I would be insane with anger, but would I still be against the death penalty? I don’t know.
2. “May God have mercy on your soul” It occurs to me, as I have watched my friend deal with the fall out from this tragedy over the past year that I would be capable of no more than the judge. The only thing that could escape my lips at this point would be, “May God have mercy on your soul.” This is not to say, “Rot in Hell”, because if that is what I meant, that is what I would say. To me “May God have mercy on your soul” is partly in response to what my mother taught me: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” But it is actually doing one better. “May God have mercy on your soul” suggests that just because I don’t have anything nice to say does not mean that God would not have anything nice to say, and so I wish that for the person who murdered my friend’s father, that God would offer the mercy that I cannot.
3. “Why wouldn’t Christians hold out for these possibilities [of restoration]?” This is precisely why I say, “May God have mercy on your soul.” But what about restoration for my friend? And her mother? And their family relationships now tenuous and stressed by the fall out from this heinous crime? What about my friend’s children, RJ’s grandchildren, who can’t “un-know”, “un-see”, or be “un-shaped” by any restoration. I am not suggesting that they will be restored by the imposition of the death penalty, in fact my friend has said as much. But this causes me to wonder about the genesis of the notion of gehenna/hell while (after?) the bible was being written, was this notion developed to address a psychological human need to know that the justice that we are individually unable to carry out would eventually be exacted? Again, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, and I am not a hell and brimstone Christian, but does this deal with a psychological need, one which I know nothing about? If so maybe we should oppose the death penalty with our votes so that when the next family goes through this, capital punishment is not among the list of options. But can we know that is the right thing to do unless we, God forbid, REALLY KNOW?
I am not asking these questions because I have already reached a conclusion. I am asking them precisely because I really don’t know. And I am glad I don’t know.
Insane with anger.
I agree. There is a measure of insanity that is laced throughout the entire process, from the crime to the rage of those affected by it, emotions that transport us to a different place.
I don’t know either how I would feel. I think I would have to depend on the witness of other family victims, or of the likes of Desmond Tutu who built an entire restorative process for an entire nation to find peace through reconciliation.
I believe that I should not have written that I read that into Judge Zell’s words. I do not know.
I may well have had this poem I heard in my head from Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac the other day, called “Bless Their Hearts,” by Richard Newman. The point is this glorious truth that when someone adds that phrase after the name of someone, they actually want to stick it to them.
I learned too at seminary from a professor of mine to say it to students before they take a test, as in “If you cheat on a test in seminary/in religion, May God Have Mercy On Your Soul.”
But I do confess that it rubs me the wrong way, precisely because of what I said above: God does offer mercy. And so if a person invokes God’s name, then it seems to me that one ought to be an ambassador of God’s will. I don’t know the Judge’s religious perspective, and that would help me understand why he used that phrase in that courtroom at that moment.
But according to _my_ religious perspective, the very use of the phrase prohibits the very action that the Judge was allowing.
Still and even so, I like your take on those words used at that moment better than my take on it, and I hope that you are right and I am wrong.
And yes, this psychological need. It is real. It is visceral. It is to be recognized as a force.
All of that is true.
I’m left, however, wondering what, as religious people–whatever one’s religion is–role has in deciding whether we will act on our psychological impulses or our religious moorings?
Look. I’m an emotional woman enthralled with psychology. So it’s not the point that I don’t like emotions. I’m working on a blog about the Song of Songs, and it’s got emotions in it, I’ll tell you, lots of raw, delightful emotions.
But when we are speaking about the life and death of someone, I am not sure whether our amygdala or our frontal cortex ought to be holding court.
Our amygdala attends to our fight or flight needs, but if the person is already imprisoned, a victim is, at least by way of that particular perpetrator, safe.
If anything, any fear and anger could be rather directed toward the court system that allows for early release while not providing nearly enough psychological care and safety before they leave–regardless of whether they leave by way of foot or by way of stretcher.
Fear, anger, resentment, vindictiveness, those are all emotions that are valid and deserve direct attention and help. But we have therapists, pastors, and all sorts of traditional wisdom about forgiveness, mindfulness, and restoration that move one toward release and healing.
Further killing satisfies too, but I’m left to wonder what part of us.
In all of these responses, I can imagine all sorts of responses and retorts, and I am open to them. It helps me to know what the tradition is out of which the questions come, so that I can have a framework for understanding the viewpoint.
Mine is, again, simply that I believe that God’s agenda is life. I believe that we are called to be stewards of that. I believe that to claim this does not exclude judgment in the least, but it does reframe its grounds and its goals, and it does say that death, i.e., judgment, is not the last word.
I can’t write “sigh” often enough.
Thanks for your post.
Thank you for your insights, Anna. I come to this from many angles. I, too, would say I am against the death penalty. But I also spent 2 weeks in AZ a couple of years ago, with one of my dearest friends, as the trial took place for the man that broke into her mother’s home, terrorized and tied up family members, then came to her bedroom and shot and killed her husband in front of her eyes. Being at only two of the MANY weeks of trial was an amazing experience…every day the killer walked in and glared at all of us. There was no question he killed my friend’s husband…it was just a question about whether he would get life or the death sentence. He had been involved in crime since he was 12 years old, and showed absolutely NO remorse. He currently sits on death row. My friend has survived the trauma of seeing her husband be shot and killed, spent months in AZ at a trial looking at the killer each day, attended the wedding of one of her children, looks forward to her first grandchild, and went through a very critical brain surgery with another child…each time without the man she loved at her side.
And another piece…on the list of people who have been executed in Sioux Falls is a man named Brave Bear. He shot and killed my father’s relative as he returned home from war, carrying a wad of money for his family. His brothers later found him, stripped and dead.
So in my heart, I can understand a bit how intense that pain is, and why death seems to be the only answer. My friend chose not to think about it…it is against her religious beliefs, but she left it in the hands of the court.
So many angles…so much to consider. Thank you for sharing the words of faith, and reminding us what Jesus would expect us to do.
Deep sighs for all of these grave and devastating tales.
There is no “good” answer here. No matter what, life seems to be trivialized and death seems to dominate the conversation.
The restorative justice movement really does speak to the complexities of this situation as well as any model I’ve found. It does not diminish the awfulness of the crime. But it does seek to make healing rather than condemnation the goal. Of course, nothing can every restore the bodies and spirits of those affected by the crime to their wellness prior to the offense. But restorative justice seeks to say that even so, death will not decide the tenor of the conversation. Many people who have been affected by this process have been stunned to learn of the ravages of the personal histories of the criminals. They have begun to see that healing for them can be healing for the perpetrator. And they see that while forgiveness is certainly, in part, for the offender, it is perhaps most healing for the one offended.
Regardless, it is a given that the punishment will not return the world to the way it was or the way it should be. Given that, how now can we proceed so that life, and not death, will stake a claim?
Sounds good, but for those affected, not at all, in the least, easy.